TORONTO — Timothy Liljegren technically made the Toronto Maple Leafs roster out of training camp, spending a practice day with the team as part of a salary cap maneuver before getting sent back to the American Hockey League.
His return had a different feel Monday even if he was only serving as a standby for the slightly ailing Tyson Barrie.
It was a sign, however small, that Liljegren is inching closer to the margins of the Leafs orbit. That the distance between where he is and where he wants to be is narrowing.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said.
This doesn’t appear to be the callup that will result in his NHL debut.
Barrie was a full participant in practice after injuring his ankle over the weekend and pronounced himself fit for Tuesday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres. However, even if Liljegren is gone again before puck drop, head coach Sheldon Keefe believes there’s value in having him “come up and get reps in practice and find a level of comfort around here that could serve him well in the future.”
The 20-year-old defenceman is arguably the organization’s most important prospect.
The Leafs need Liljegren to be a full-time NHL player next season, full stop.
They don’t even currently have a proven right-shot defenceman under contract for 2020-21 with Barrie, Justin Holl and Cody Ceci all eligible for unrestricted free agency. And that’s not a problem you can expect to shop your way out of in a salary cap world.
Even accounting for the possibility Toronto swings a forward-for-defenceman trade in the next 10 months and extends at least one of the impending UFA’s, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a healthy Liljegren isn’t playing NHL minutes at this time next year.
That’s what made his appearance now so intriguing.
He and Martin Marincin were brought up under emergency conditions, which means they’ll both be sent right back to the Marlies if Barrie and the team’s other five defencemen are all deemed healthy on Tuesday.
Liljegren was simply told to “stay ready” and felt comfortable at a Keefe-led practice after spending two-plus years playing for him in the AHL. The coach has similar feelings about a young prospect he’s had a large hand in developing.
“I think he’s just continued on with where he left off last season, in terms of being a very reliable guy away from the puck and playing against other teams’ best players and taking a step offensively this year with a little more power play time,” said Keefe.
Rival teams are mixed on how they view the 17th overall pick from 2017. Some question his decision-making and penchant for playing loose, but one scout who has had multiple viewings on Liljegren this season applauded his heavy shot and skating ability.
Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has remained bullish on Liljegren’s potential since draft day, telling reporters last December that the organization thought he was on track for his NHL breakthrough at that point before suffering a high-ankle sprain.
This year he has continued to log big minutes in all situations for the Marlies while compiling 13 points (2-11) in 24 games. He’s feeling much more comfortable and become an impact performer at the AHL level.
“As soon as you play over 20 minutes [per night] you can have a little bit more poise to your game,” said Liljegren. “You don’t feel like you have to do something every shift, you just kind of go with the flow and do stuff when you can. It’s easier to play good hockey when you play more minutes.”
No matter how much he progresses in the second half, it’s unlikely he finds himself in the Leafs plans this season.
In fact, a fully healthy roster wouldn’t even have room to accommodate Liljegren’s $1,263,333 cap hit — not without a salary-reducing trade beforehand. So barring an unexpected deal or an injury to one of the Leafs regulars, this brief taste of NHL life (and pay) will be all he gets for the foreseeable future.
Still, there’s no doubt Liljegren’s inching closer to his dream.
The fact he was even called up at all on Monday tells us something about his standing within the organization.
“There’s a lot of reasons for us to believe in him,” said Keefe. “I know at times people have been hard on him and his development — it hasn’t been as quickly as some might like — but we’ve seen steady progress there and he’s really worked at it and kept a good attitude.
“It was nice to see him here in the building today.”